By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
The deaths of former Moral Majority chief Jerry Falwell and activist/televangelist D. James Kennedy in 2007 and of Moral Majority cofounder Paul Weyrich last year had lots of people talking about how the Christian right's founding fathers were literally disappearing.
But Friday's announcement that James Dobson is leaving Focus on the Family's daily radio show has much bigger political ramifications. Whereas Falwell and Kennedy had watched their power fade decades earlier and Weyrich was a behind-the-scenes Washington player rather than a cultural force, Dobson is still hugely influential among millions of Americans, particularly evangelicals. By leaving his radio show, Dobson is giving up his biggest platform.
Dobson's political clout always depended on his daily radio show, which was called Focus on the Family even before the ministry of the same name began growing up around it in the late 1970s. The program, carried on roughly 2,000 American radio stations, is Dobson's pipeline to the evangelical masses. While Dobson's 2003 decision to step down as Focus's president and his resignation last year as chairman of the organization's board didn't really compromise his political influence, giving up the radio show does.
I discussed how Dobson's daily broadcast gave him unique influence in my book, The Jesus Machine:
Early on, [Dobson] perceived that his broadcast, by connecting him to listeners every day, presented him with the opportunity to win their trust and to help instill in them an orthodox Christian worldview that rejected the reigning postmodernism. "He was skeptical as to the lasting impact of just speaking once to any group," says Peb Jackson, who would become Focus's first public affairs director. "He was more interested in long-term relationships. That was why the daily radio show was the perfect medium. He is in your face every day, talking about the issues and values and he felt that happened over a period of time. . . . You could get people whipped up with music or by a great speaker, but he felt radio was transformational in helping people define their thinking on issues."
Of course, that includes political issues. Going forward, Dobson will turn some heads when he appears as a guest on Focus radio shows or on the Fox News Channel. But you can't maintain the kind of bond honed through daily contact with listeners with occasional media appearances.
This is the end of an era.